As expected, last Thursday’s Wrestle Kingdom 12 show from the Tokyo Dome was big. A shade under six hours long and with a reported crowd around 33 percent larger than normal for the event, there was every reason for the NJPW wrestlers to feel a twinge of anxiety. Wrestle Kingdom 12 was built up as something portentous. It felt like everything hinged on this one night. If it was a success, NJPW could truly cement itself as a burgeoning number two to WWE. There were too many inroads made to the American audience with the Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega match. There was too much weight to Kazuchika Okada’s best year in pro wrestling history. And there were too many people watching to let it all go to waste.
Mercifully, the moment didn’t go to waste. And if that seems like a small thing unworthy of remark, it’s worth remembering how quickly pro wrestling’s moments can go sour with bad booking decisions or referee mistakes. (Just look back on the last few months of WWE.) One of the most impressive skills pro wrestlers, bookers, writers, and all the others who make pro wrestling possess is the way to read and move with the emotional rhythms of a crowd, predicting and reacting to what they want, often when the crowd doesn’t even really know.
That was the minimum expected for Wrestle Kingdom 12 after NJPW’s year. But its shows in 2017 were too good for just the minimum to be enough. We wanted Wrestle Kingdom 12 to be more than just in sync with our desires. We wanted to gasp and to lose ourselves. We wanted to huddle with friends who don’t watch, point at our screens, and say, "That is what I’ve been telling you all these years."
The short version is that Wrestle Kingdom 12 did all of that, did amazing business, but there was still a drop-off. And to repeat the necessary bit: there was almost no way that there couldn’t be. Not after the Okada-Omega trilogy and Okada-Shibata. Not after the Young Bucks exploded or Tetsuya Naito’s year long chasing of the top belt. Not after the electricity of that first stop on the West Coast, or even after Wrestle Kingdoms of the recent past, of Shinsuke Nakamura and A.J. Styles, or a younger, rawer Okada doing his own chase of Hiroshi Tanahashi over two years.
Still, we’re talking small drop-offs here. Of all the old hands, Tanahashi was the biggest culprit. He’s 41 now, slower and being phased out, and he had a thoroughly unremarkable match with Switchblade Jay White, a young gun with skin so soft and smooth looking that it’s impossible to buy him as the leather jacket and knives gimmick he’s been given. Since Tanahashi doesn’t really have bad matches, his involvement in a match which was merely there seemed jarring, not least because it’s starting to feel as though NJPW’s near to medium term future without him is better than the world where he’s in the mix as top guy.
Otherwise, there could be few complaints about the wrestling. For me, Wrestle Kingdom was the tale of three matches: Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega, Cody Rhodes vs. Kota Ibushi, and Kazuchika Okada vs. Tetsuyo Naito. Each of those matches was a clear cut above the rest of the show.
Jericho vs. Omega was the talk of the wrestling world coming in. It remains undeniably strange that Jericho is in New Japan, doing this, and Vince McMahon is apparently fine with it—or, more likely, fine enough because what the hell is he going to do, since a Chris Jericho he annoys by telling him no is going to do it anyway and then he looks bad. It’s even stranger that he’s coming back for more; the post-Wrestle Kingdom New Year’s Dash, which sets up NJPW’s next storylines, has Jericho poised to wrestle Naito this spring.
Intrigue around Jericho in NJPW, his status as a legend, Omega’s reputation as an athletic freak, and the forceful push the promotion has been making in North America, all combined to make this one of the most anticipated matches in years. Certainly, no match outside WWE in recent memory has garnered this much mainstream buzz. That buzz fit well with NJPW’s attempts at doing the “we do wrestling” pitch as the anti-WWE. Many have tried this, notably TNA-GFW-Impact Wrestling, and many have failed.
The main thing we had to believe during the match was that Jericho and Omega really did hate each other. That was accomplished, and everything else was gravy. I went in wanting that more than another Omega clinic on how to make it look like you can fly; we got the clinic, and a whole lot more.
To be certain, it was slower than Omega’s best matches, but Jericho is a step or two slower than he used to be. That’s fine, and Jericho made up losing a step with some of the smarmiest, best heel work he’s done in years. He pranced and preened around, he cheated, he hit bystanders (the crowd’s reaction when he decked the son of legendary NJPW referee Red Shoes is best described as barely restrained horror). Omega bled, flew, and eventually got the win, which is exactly as it should have gone.
The other main event, with Tetsuya Naito vs. Kazuchika Okada, was the best match of the card, but typified the sense that there was simply no way to do better than what had come before. It was, to be fair, a pretty much flawless match with a great story. Naito has been something of a perpetual third wheel—his IWGP heavyweight championship reign was brief and he’s felt like an afterthought in the swirl of Tanahashi, Okada, Omega, Nakamura, and Styles over the past few years. He parlayed that into a gimmick of cool detachment and faint disgust over his status, and the second half of 2017 was leading up to Okada vs. Naito after the latter’s win in the G1 Climax tournament.
In the process of all of this, Naito went from star to megastar. He’s cool in a way few of the other wrestlers in NJPW are; his signature taunt, in which he opens his left eye wider with his fingers to stare at you, was picked up in Mexico as a physical retort to fans mocking his East Asian eyes, and it’s become a symbol which is simultaneously defiant and invulnerable to caring about his doubters. He is wildly, passionately over, and the Tokyo Dome during the Okada-Naito match was vividly pro-Naito.
Which is why despite a great match, with Okada dropping one of the greatest dropkicks the world’s ever seen, it seemed wrong that Naito lost. There are a lot of mitigating factors at play: the heavyweight champion has always won since the G1 Climax winner started getting a title shot, Okada has a record for most successful title defenses in sight and they want to keep the historic nature of his reign going, and Naito’s older.
But for all that, it seemed like the right time to let Naito have his reign. There are peaks and valleys in a wrestler’s heat, and it’s hard to imagine Naito being hotter than right now. There’s an argument that Okada had to lose to Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 9 before he could become the Okada we have now, but it just doesn’t line up for Naito in the same way. He is older, it feels like he could get colder more easily, and it’s hard to see them setting up a Naito challenge after the immediate pivot to a Naito-Jericho match with Omega still waiting for his shot at being champion from last year. If it wasn’t time for Naito at Wrestle Kingdom, then when? The answer is frustratingly unclear.
My favorite match of the night wasn’t the best, but it was (for me) the most fun. Cody (née Rhodes) pulled off a perfect, capsule-sized portrayal as a pantomime villain versus the wholesome babyface athleticism of Kota Ibushi. Ibushi won—which, just as with Omega, was the right decision, driving home how much of an aberration the Okada-Naito booking felt—but it was the portrayals of an old school heel-babyface dynamic which thrilled.
Cody’s been strangely maligned since he left WWE. A not insignificant part of this is his wrestling style: he is wholly a creation of WWE training and refining, and the slower, heavier style with the mugging to the camera is something which can be jarring out on the looser, more inventive and intimate world outside WWE. It doesn’t bother me (and I’m not alone in liking Cody), but he is polarizing, with enough chatter around his being a 3 star wrestler now working in a 4.5 star world that you could almost believe it.
On Thursday, he seemed like a liberated man. He sauntered his way to the ring with his wife and valet, Brandi Rhodes, on one arm before kissing her slowly and turning to the crowd as if to say, “Look at us, two people more beautiful and successful than any of you could ever be." That was the portrayal from there on out. Cody’s slightly too large mouth lent his face the air of a prosopon as he mugged and howled to the crowd.
Ibushi, for his part, was pure babyface. The proceedings were best illustrated by an early sequence in which Ibushi accidentally struck Brandi. He was devastated and picked her up in despair, only for Cody to hammer him in the back. As it turned out, Brandi was faking; he and Cody lay on the floor laughing about their deed. It was pure melodrama of the best sort, capped off with Ibushi fighting back and winning with a phoenix splash from the top rope.
It was precisely the match both men needed. Cody needed to get out of his perceived doldrums, and he did so by having the best match of his career, ratcheting up his rich boy villainy to parodic levels. Ibushi needed to cement his status as Japan’s next big thing (he already is a big thing, but Okada was a big thing and got bigger, with the same dynamic playing out here) and, importantly, to play off of his grimacing, sneering foil. It was perfect in its dramatic execution because light and dark are rarely so perfectly played by two wrestlers over the course of a single match anymore. I couldn’t stop thinking about that sequence with Ibushi picking Brandi up once Wrestle Kingdom was over. Other people can have their six feet in the air dropkicks, hoss fights, and Kenny Omega dives. Give me this distilled recreation of good and evil played out over 20 minutes.
Which was really the best thing to say about Wrestle Kingdom 12. There actually was something for everyone. If you like choreographed modern Euro wrestling, there was a four way doing that. If you wanted violent big guys slapping each other over who gets his head shaved, there was Goto and Suzuki. There was just about everything but death matches. Even if it didn’t quite reach the heights of 2017’s vintage, Wrestle Kingdom 12 still proved vibrant and fresh in a way few other pro wrestling events can.